Monday, February 20, 2012

Why Good PR Matters to Allergic and Atopic People

I am writing this with my PR cap on. Despite the years of research and evidence on the subject, some companies just don't understand good crisis communications. So, what is good crisis communications? Essentially, it's having a strategic communications plan to deal with any possible problem (even ones you can't imagine) that may arise in the future. While the specifics vary, the basics work in every situation.

1. Accept responsibility and be honest
2. Apologize (and mean it)
3. Be quick and accurate in your response

There is certainly much more to it than that, but again, those are the basics. I think the fourth is that if at all possible, avoid the crisis in the first place. Good crisis communications matter for every company and it is especially crucial for companies who gear their products or services to those with health conditions - like food allergies or eczema - that can be exacerbated when something goes wrong in their product line.

Recently there have been quite a few companies who have had issues with their product lines or with not meeting customer expectations in some fashion - Maple Leaf Foods, Aveeno, Zero8, Enjoy Life and Sweets From the Earth. However, they've all dealt with their issues a bit differently. Maple Leaf Food and Aveeno have unfortunately taken a much more subdued approach to serious issues, while Zero8, Enjoy Life and Sweets From the Earth have acknowledged the severity of the problems accordingly and as a result have certainly proven that they take their devotion to their customers seriously.

As a little history lesson, the Tylenol case is a benchmark for amazing crisis communications. In the 1980s, a still unidentified individual tampered with their product, lacing capsules with cyanide. There were many deaths attributed to the product tampering. As a result, Tylenol implemented industry-changing procedures and technologies, including caplets and tamper-proof seals. They also cooperated fully with all law-enforcement personnel and participated in a complete recall of their product. Most importantly, even though they were not responsible for the tampering, they accepted full responsibility and took whatever measures possible to ensure the product became safe. It's hard to imagine Tylenol as anything but a trusted brand nowadays.

More recent examples of good PR are Enjoy Life Food's recent reaction to the corn issue and though it's getting a little old as a case study, Nestle's response to parents of children with peanut allergies. In both circumstances, both companies faced a backlash from parents regarding potential cross-contamination to an allergen. Nestle faced a backlash from parents when they announced a previously nut-free production facility was to be transitioned to produce chocolate products which did contain nuts. While the initial response was apologetic, the company refused to make any changes. However, realizing that more than money was at stake (Nestle experienced a financial loss in changing their position), Nestle decided to keep the production plant peanut-free.

Currently Enjoy Life is experiencing backlash from parents for various reasons, all involving the potential inclusion of corn in some of their products, mostly due to the potential of cross-contamination. Some of this has been due to unclear and misleading labels on third-party sites and incomplete labelling on Enjoy Life's part. For a full description, please read the most recent statement by Scott Mandell, CEO and Founder of Enjoy Life Foods.

However, there is no doubt that none of this was done with any intention of misleading the public, since Enjoy Life is dedicated to providing a trusted product free of the top eight allergens. It would be unlikely that they would intentionally jeopardize that position by purposely misleading customers on product contents which have the potential to harm children - their primary end customer. Could their packaging have been clearer? It seems so. However, are they making amends, being honest, taking responsibility and doing everything possible to correct the situation? I believe they are. This is a great example of company transparency.

Zero8 and Sweets From the Earth have a more direct correlation to the Tylenol case study. Their products were contaminated through no fault of their own, though obviously these weren't cases of tampering. However, Zero8 (gluten contamination) and Sweets From the Earth (dairy contamination) accepted the severity and temporarily ceased production of frozen foods in the case of Zero8 and in the case of Sweets from the Earth, carried out a recall. Both companies made public statements through their websites and social media. The amount of transparency demonstrated by these companies is exactly what a consumer should hope to see from companies.

Enter Aveeno and Maple Leaf. The two stories are similar to each other in that the responses are inadequate, yet one company seems to have gone out of their way to mislead while the other is experiencing a crisis not necessarily of their own making.

A batch of Aveeno Baby Calming Comfort Lotion was found to be contaminated with Staphylococci, a fairly innocuous bacteria which is present on skin - innocuous unless you have atopic dermatitis. In that case, the fallout can be mild to severe. The link to the recall on Aveeno's US site (this is a localized contamination) reveals their recommendations regarding potential adverse affects. I have not included the entire release in the interests of keeping this as short as possible and I have highlighted the parts with which I take issue in yellow. 

JANUARY 27, 2012 
  1. Q: Why are you recalling these products?
    Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc. is initiating this retail-level recall as a precautionary measure after post release testing of a product sample by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That test indicated that one lot exceeded the specifications for common bacteria, though extensive testing by an independent laboratory afterward did not show that specifications were exceeded. However, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc. has voluntarily initiated this recall out of an abundance of caution. This action is not being undertaken on the basis of adverse events and the potential for adverse health effects is remote...
  2. Q: Can consumers continue to use their AVEENO® Baby Calming Comfort® Lotion?
    A: Consumers do not need to take action and the potential for adverse health effects is remote.
    Of course, anyone who has concerns or is uncomfortable using the product may discontinue use and call our Consumer Call Center...
  3. Q: Are there health effects associated with the reason for this recall?
    This action is not being undertaken on the basis of adverse events and the potential for adverse health events is remote. No action is required by consumers; however, if consumers have questions or would like a refund, they should call our Consumer Call Center...
  4. Q: Should consumers return this product?
    Consumers do not need to take action and the potential for adverse health effects is remote. However, if consumers have questions or would like a refund, they should call our Consumer Call Center...
  5. Q: Will you provide consumers with a refund?
    Yes, we will offer consumers a refund. Consumers do not need to take action and the potential for adverse health effects is remote. However, anyone who has concerns or is uncomfortable using the product may discontinue use and call our Consumer Call Center...
Key messages are great, but we all remember situations where someone on the news who is clearly uncomfortable with the media seems to repeat one or two things every time he or she is asked a question by a reporter. It comes off as too rehearsed and therefore, not genuine. The fact is that for the regular population, adverse health effects are certainly remote. However, not so for any child with atopic dermatitis. Aveeno is a trusted name when it comes to eczema skin care; so, the absolute lack of any reference to this condition is not just an oversight. It's an omission.

When it comes to Maple Leaf Foods, I have to say I'm shocked that they've actually purposely mislead the public. I honestly hope to see an explanation that proves the contrary, especially considering their PR regarding listeria deaths in Canada, not that long ago, was viewed as brilliant crisis communications. They did everything right. They shut down their plant to clean it properly and then implemented proper procedures to ensure that it didn't happen again. Their spokesperson, CEO Michael McCain, was sympathetic and accepted responsibility.

So, the Natural Selections meats with "celery extract" that is bio-chemically identical to nitrites is not a good example of transparency. A lot of people have spent extra money to purchase this product for the sole fact that the ingredient list is small, pronounceable and nitrite-free. They thought it was "natural". They accepted a high sodium content, believing that salt was the preservative. Instead, Marketplace, CBC's consumer magazine show, did some research and revealed the truth. Maple Leaf's response?

"We care deeply about the integrity of the products that we produce and the labelling is accurate," said Randy Huffman, chief product safety officer with Maple Leaf Foods. - "Maple Leaf Foods changes misleading product labels", 02 February 2012,

According to Marketplace, Maple Leaf will be changing their labels to reflect the fact that the products do contain nitrite, but they haven't accepted any responsibility for what is now seen as the purposeful misleading of the public to capitalize on the public's appetite for natural products.

I like to keep track of these things for various reasons. It tells me a lot about a company. While I can't use Aveeno products due to allergies, I now wonder about their production methods since they haven't released any information about how the contamination occurred and they haven't accepted full responsibility or made proper statements for part of their target market, infants with atopic dermatitis. Maple Leaf has misjudged their public this time. Personally, this has made me question the integrity of their business practices and their products. A food company must always be trustworthy.

The lesson for anyone with allergic or atopic conditions is to pay attention to the companies you frequent. Understand their practices and make sure you are comfortable with them. Should a crisis occur, that is often the best time to see what a company is truly made of. If they are sympathetic and take responsibility, that's a company you want to give your business to. If they lack transparency and try to avoid the issue and responsibility, you might want to consider taking your business elsewhere. Reward those who respect their customers.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How to Write Satire: My Response to Marty Beckerman

I generally don't get involved in silly things like this. There are plenty of ignorant people in the world - some by choice and some through no fault of their own. I don't read comments on news stories let alone contribute to the vast wasteland of misspelled, grammatically incorrect and illogical comments.

"Trial by Peanut?"
I have to admit I've never heard of Marty Beckerman. After having read his articles "Your Peanut-Allergic Kid is a Little Goddamn Pussy" (missing a much needed comma) and its slightly less vitriolic follow-up "How to Defeat Your Bully: The Art of War for Peanut-Allergic Kids", I can easily say I will go back to my ignorance of his existence. Not because I hate Mr. Beckerman. I don't know him. Not even because he said a bunch of fairly horrible things about children either. After all, Jonathan Swift made a pretty great case for eating babies.

However, unlike Jonathan Swift, Beckerman is a pretty inept, self-titled "satirist". Satire is more than just saying offensive things and throwing in a lot of profanities. If that's all it took, the poor, homeless mentally ill gentleman who makes the rounds in my downtown city would certainly qualify.

Satire exists to make a point. Satire is brilliant because it points out the ridiculous and makes one think about the core truths without the author being so boring as to list them. Satire is witty, interesting and challenging. Beckerman's posts are just rambling profanities with pictures.

If I look really hard, Beckerman is probably trying to tell parents that they should teach their children how to deal with allergies. However, what Beckerman missed is that children are children. They can't always take care of every problem they have, no matter how stellar their parents are. Otherwise, they'd move out of the house at 10 and get their own jobs.

"Get a real job!"
Satire is a subtle creature. For instance, I could certainly get upset with people who honestly think food allergies are a way to weed out the weakest parts of the population. Or, I could agree. After all, they may have a point. Allergies are a harmful genetic mutation. They serve no good in the gene pool. In fact, neither do cancer, diabetes, asthma, multiple sclerosis or macular degeneration. Come to think of it, those whose bodies aren't capable of fighting off influenza, tuberculosis or polio are genetic weak links. Plus, if we could eliminate the need for medications like insulin, vaccines, inhalers and anti-histamines, we would be saving quite a bit of money. There would be some job losses, but no one likes pharmaceutical companies anyway. Scientists could be put to better use, like finding out how to reverse climate change. And for those who end up dying, well, that's a bonus for their families, too. Sure, the family members have to foot the bill for a funeral, but that's got to cost far less than a lifetime of medicine and doctor visits. Frankly, I think if you put this case to every allergic child, they'd agree that it's best that they just stay home and don't receive treatment. It's for the good of the entire world really.

That is satire. It's possibly not well-written, but still satire. So, instead of being really upset with Mr. Beckerman because he demonstrates just how ridiculous a lot of people really are, I think it's better to work towards educating people. All that energy can be put to some really great causes, like making sure every school in Canada and other countries have access to epinephrine and training on how to use it. Chances are anyone who reads poorly written things like his posts regularly can't be approached with logic anyway.

NOTE: I have not linked to Mr. Beckerman's posts. If you haven't read them, they're easy to find if you wish to do so. I will, however, link to A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift.

Friday, February 10, 2012

REVIEW: Waiting for My Ange-Gardien Chocolates

February 2nd
Since I'm a single gal & my birthday is coming up, I decided that there was every reason to treat myself. The one thing, actually two things I've been dying to try are the Chocolate Tasting Box and the chocolate with crunchy salt flower caramel from Ange-Gardien (Guardian Angel Foods). I have to admit that the little pop-up picture (on the right) totally sold me when I first checked out their site.  So, I've placed the order through their on-line system, which is available in English and French. Sadly, it won't be shipped until February 8th, but it should arrive on February 10th. I think I can hold out for a week!

February 6th
I received a Canada Post email - on behalf of Ange-Gardien - which let me know my chocolates have been shipped - two days early! The email notification is such a great gesture.

February 8th
My chocolates arrived two days early, which is entirely lovely. Everything was packaged quite well; so, it arrived in perfect condition. The second I took a few pictures, I tried the salt flower caramel chocolates. All in all, these are pretty good. They are packaged in a little cellophane bag with a chocolate brown bow - perfect gift packaging. I will admit that I prefer bittersweet chocolate; so, I found these quite sweet, but if you love your chocolate sweet, you'll adore these. If you've got children, they'll gobble them up tout de suite.

Allergy-wise, Ange-Gardien products are free of dairy, nuts (peanut and tree) and eggs. The Tasting Box contains wheat, soy and dye and the Chocolate with salt flower caramel contains soy and may contain wheat.

February 10th
The salt flower caramels have long-since disappeared. They were amazing with a cup of Early Grey tea. I have a few of the Tasting Box chocolates left. Each one is a perfect, little chocolate square containing a delicious, gooey centre in one of the following five flavours - Honey and Caramel, Chocolate Ganache, Coffee, Maple Butter and Salt Flower Caramel. I won't even attempt to pick my favourite since they were all wonderful.

All in all, this was a wise investment. I quite love these chocolates, which will sadly be gone by tonight. I highly recommend these chocolates (allergies-willing) for your allergic sweetheart.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Let's Talk About Depression

I love Bell's Let's Talk initiative for a bunch of reasons. The first is that throughout the day, Bell contributes five cents from every long-distance call, text and official retweet from their customers toward mental health. The second is because Bell actually accomplishes its other goal - to get people talking about mental health. The third is because they focus on the "health" part of this condition, not the illness part. It's about starting a conversation, creating awareness and getting rid of the stigma associated with the condition.

I've posted before about depression as an integral part of the atopic-allergic triad (World Mental Health Day, Mental Health Week). Whatever the link, it's not something to be ignored. As a child, teenager or adult with multiple atopic and allergic conditions, it's almost unfathomable that one wouldn't experience some dark times and some dark thoughts. However, how many times is depression really discussed as part of medical treatment? It should be and if you or someone you care for has multiple allergic or atopic conditions, I encourage you to discuss this with your doctor.

Today is a great day to start having that conversation with others. If you're the one suffering silently, don't. You are certainly not alone and there is nothing wrong with having depression. There is something wrong with not getting help. If you are the parent, partner or friend of someone with allergies and atopy and you think that they're depressed, start this discussion. Let them know you're there to talk and offer support if they decide to seek professional treatment.

No one who understands atopic conditions or allergies would tell someone with either (or both) to "buck up and get over it". Allergies and atopy don't work that way. Neither does depression. Allergies and atopy can require medication, treatment and in the case of eczema even behavioural modification. Depression is no different. It requires care, treatment and understanding.

So, start talking.